The False Promise of Respectful Difference

This piece was guest written by Biz Berthy ’17

CW: This piece contains descriptions of sexual assault

The other week I was reading through a series of court cases from 17th century Virginia. My comps topic, very broadly speaking, is on gender and race in early American society. As a history major, and one who is interested in early America in particular, you get used to reading bizarre descriptions, to seeing strange illustrations, and so on. Most of the times we laugh at their absurdity, because we cannot fathom the idea of finding even the faintest trace of the same logic in our society, in our own communities, today. That is what history is: a narrative we tell ourselves over and over and over until it is finally engrained in our minds and we no longer have to even practice the act of storytelling; it is given. Yet, as I read through these 17th century documents, I found a case that I could not laugh at, not only because of the atrocious nature of the crime, but also because I saw an undeniable similarity between the way the case was handled then and the way that rape cases are handled today, four centuries later.

In 1689, a young Eliza Farrell and her husband pressed charges against Thomas Seawell for raping Eliza. According to Eliza, Thomas followed her home, sexually assaulted her with an ox horn and a lit candle, and then publicly shamed her by singing her pubic hair and shoving it in her husband’s face. Instead of Thomas facing swift and immediate punishment, the court chose to highlight the fact that Eliza was “swinishly drunk,” and unaccompanied by a man. Given that, they settled on Thomas simply paying a fine to Eliza’s husband, Brian, for “damaging” his property, and therefore, his honor.

Reading this, I was suddenly catapulted to this summer, in the year 2016, when I first read about the Brock Turner case- a rape seemingly so clearly abhorrent, so clearly violent, that I was foolish enough to believe that there would be severe consequences for his actions. And I was exactly that: foolish. Brock Turner received a sentence of six months in county jail, and was released after only three.

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